By Kevin Horan
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the tea room. I sat poised, trying to breath but being stricken by the gravity of the room. At the center of the wood paneled room sat a Korean Seon monk. Seon being the Korean name of the Chan school of Buddhism, known in Japanese as Zen. His gray robes and serene expression emitted an air of otherworldliness.
He poured the kettle of boiling water into a celadon colored pot. The preferred color of Korea’s Buddhist Goryeo dynasty, before being replaced by the purity-evoking white of the Neo-Confucian Joseon dynasty. After a moment or two he then drained its contents into another large bowl. This bowl had a small spout on the lip which he used to pour into several small white cups.
A temple assistant, a woman in her mid 40’s shuffled around the circle of people sitting cross-legged, and reverently handed us each a cup of green tea. Hold the bottom with your left hand. Use your right hand to hold the front. In three sips drain your cup. The first sip, taste the elegant head of the tea. The second sip, the robust body of the tea. The final sip, reflect on the transient nature of life and the final bitter-sweet notes of the tea. Not only was this my first Temple-stay program in South Korea. But it was also my first formal introduction to Korean tea, my first experience of Dado (다도, 茶道), the “Way of Tea”.
My experience and appreciation for tea and the art and etiquette of tea truly blossomed after that experience. I had signed up for the government run Temple-stay program and chose that particular temple not just because it was close to the town I was living at the time, but also because of the exclusive tea ceremony. Though most temple-stay programs, where lay people of any nationality or faith may pay a fee to experience the life of a Korean Seon Buddhist monk or nun for a few days, feature tea ceremonies, this one was unique. It was unique in that it was the first time I not only felt a deep immersion into my tea experience, but into Korean culture as well. The temple-stay program is quite a recent development, but the history and aesthetic of Korean tea goes back centuries.
Korean Tea History
Some of the first records of tea in the Korean peninsula are traced back to the year 661 A.D. where various historical records commentate on tea ritual offerings to gods, kings and as Buddhist ritual ceremonies.
The first tea plants and tea seeds were brought to Korea from visiting Chinese dignitaries or by Korean monks returning from their studies in China. Many of the tea forests were administered and cultivated by Buddhist monks who used the drink in rituals and ceremonies.
It was also reserved for the aristocratic ruling elite. As time passed tea drinking began to fall into decline before being revived towards the end of the Joseon (조선, 朝鮮) dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. During the twilight era of the Joseon dynasty, Neo-Confucian scholars who had been living in exile near tea forests, began to reevaluate tea and tea drinking customs. Corresponding with Buddhist monks who had continued the legacy of the tea ceremony or Darye (다례, 茶禮) these scholars or Seonbi, especially virtuous and righteous Confucian gentle-men scholars, alongside the monks, were able to preserve and revive the tradition that continues today.
And this legacy does not just apply to Green tea, either. Korea has a whole catalogue of teas that go back centuries. From teas adopted from China like Hongcha or Black Tea and Bo-ee-cha or Pu’er, but also Hanyak (한약) teas. Hanyak is traditional Korean medicine, largely based on traditional Chinese medicine but incorporating native roots and plants as well. It also makes for a unique tea experience here in Korea.
Dabang: Korean Tea Houses
While my wife, a South Korean citizen, who’s name includes the Hanja or Chinese character for “tea”(茶) in her name, and I were in Cheonan near Pyeongtaek in central Korea, we visited a traditional dabang (다방) or teahouse. The building stood out from the modern buildings around it. It was pouring summer rain. A perfect day to sit in a misty teahouse. The building had the traditional Hanok (한옥) style architecture, the interior was wood and featured various folk art and calligraphy. The owner, another middle-aged woman in her 40’s or 50’s rushed over. We were the only customers, possibly all day given the weather. She regaled us with all sorts of tales, about how she is the descendant of Korea’s famous King Sejong the Great (세종 대왕). King Sejong is credited as being a Renaissance man and for commissioning the formulation of Korea’s native alphabet system, Hangul (한글).
After this rousing and potentially untrue tale, she began to describe to us the drinks on offer. We decided, given the weather, to enjoy some traditional Hanyak tea. These are believed to boost the immune system and ward off illness. True or not, they are a must try. An experience not to be passed up! After admiring the interior’s smooth wooden pillars and screens with Hanja displayed prominently, she brought us one cup of Ssanghwa-tang (쌍화탕; 雙和湯) and sipjeondaebotang. Two popular hanyak teas made from a series of various flowers, roots and herbs.
These were accompanied by an assortment of snacks, like incredibly sticky rice crackers and almonds. Both teas were served in small, round cups. The owner also lit a small stick of incense, which imbued the experience with an aura of mysticism and ambience unparalleled at any other café I’ve been to. The tea ware was smooth but with an underlying ruggedness that left them unpretentious and natural. One was a grayish-cobalt in color, the other cup was an earthy brown.
The Ssanghwa-tang was deep black like coffee devoid of any additives, some roots and seeds floated on its steamy surface. The taste was something that made no secret of being medicinal. It was a striking bitter taste, the licorice that is used in its recipe is a fierce ingredient that hits your nostrils first before slapping its way from your tongue down your throat. It is exhilarating and fills you with energy in an instant.
The more demure and gentle sipjeondaebotang tea also had some of its herbal ingredients floating on its surface. It’s surface was much clearer, a placid deep yellow-brown that made for a soothing companion to the more dynamic Ssanghwa-tang. The owner came back a few minutes later to regale us with some more less than plausible tales, which we pretended to believe nonetheless. Summer rain, intriguing tales and traditional medicinal tea. Perfect combination in my honest opinion.
Our quest for the true essence of tea would not cease there, however. Our next stop on that same trip was to Seoul. Where as we wandered the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace(경복궁, 景福宮) we came across another dabang. This one, also in the traditional Joseon hanok style as being a part of the palace grounds and the motif of Joseon era Korea. It was a wide, one story building. The staff all dressed in Hanbok (한복,韓服), Korean folk clothing, all in the style of royal attendants. The setting sun began to cast lazy shadows across the building which had wide windows that illuminated the whole room. The décor in the style of a scholar-official’s quarters with calligraphy scrolls and paper arts all around. We sat on the floor as the staff came by with pots, filling our small, round cups with various types of teas. This time some floral teas would be on offer and we would enjoy those along with sweltering Seoul air that was patiently dropping into night. Another timeless experience on the trail of the etiquette of Korean tea. But the Way of Tea was just beginning.
Boseong: A Korean Tea Region
A few months before either trip up north from our city of Ulsan in the South of the peninsula near Busan, we were sleepily boarding a bus bound for Boseong. Another tale of rain and tea as the bus sped from cityscape to mountain and forest-scape. The mists obscured the tops of colossal verdant mounds of earth. Taking us to Boseong in the far south-western side of Korea. Boseong is one of the famous regions for Korean tea. With a history that goes back 1600 years Boseong is known as the capital of green tea in Korea. It’s geographic location, climate and soil that are all enriched by the East Sea. It has a massive amount of rainfall annually. Almost half of all green tea production in Korea comes from Boseong. And here we were. The whole area was green and built out of massive, rolling hills, covered by a deep drape of mist.
We trekked through a grove of tall cedar trees that vaulted into the sky. We inhaled their pleasant aroma as we walked further up a dirt path leading to the thick green coils of tea plants wrapped around the mountain where the plantation was located. We traversed the muddy paths and wandered through bamboo groves that blocked the sunlight above. Finally we entered a gift shop that doubled as a dabang (tea house). After viewing the tea plants and climbing the top of the hill and seeing the East Sea coast in the distance, it was time to try this larger than life drink.
This time a whole group, not just one, woman in her 40’s or 50’s jumped up and began to serve us tea in the traditional style. The process was similar to the way the monk at temple-stay had done it before. After the water had boiled, the woman poured the water into a tea pot, the tea pots and tea ware for Korean tea are usually small, unpretentious and un-ostentatious. Emphasizing humility, and demure naturalness over gaudy expression. The tea ware here was no different. From the teapot, the tea itself was then poured into another bowl, again a wide bowl with a spout at the top lip. From this bowl the now ready to drink tea was poured into our small, simple cups. They have no handles and are to be cradled in the hands. Drank the same way as temple-stay. The first sip, to get a sense of the head or first essence of the tea. Second sip, the body and fuller flavor is enjoyed. And third sip. Reflect on the transience and impermanence of life and get the final nuanced taste of the deep taste of the tea.
They say Boseong tea is unique in its taste because of the soil from Jirisan, the mountain in the region, the high amount of rainfall and the nutrients from the salty winds from the East Sea. I can say it is all true. The tea had a fullness and a body I have not tasted in other green teas before or after that. The taste was not overpowering or particularly bitter but more savory with hints of umami. Wind, water and earth all combined in one cup. Maybe each sip has an essence of each of these elements, too. But to place each one separately, I think was a bit too challenging. In the tea they were all intertwined. In the tea they all found one personae in the refreshing and invigorating drink.
The Way of Tea
But the Way of Tea does not end here. And just as the elements of the Boseong tea were too hard to extract from one another, so too with Korean tea, it’s difficult to separate ancient from modern. Buddhist from Taoist, Confucian and Shamanic. From the stoic reflection on impermanence, to the joyful revelry of life and being innervated by the tea. From the medicinal to the purely recreational consumption of tea. They all mesh and mix and match and become one unique thing. Persisting and evolving over time. Continuing traditions and growing to fit the needs of modern people. This is all just an introduction to the one of a kind nature of Korean tea. To the majestic naturalness and humility of Dado. The Korean Way of Tea.